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Expertise Dice

Posted in Indies & More

The holidays have me playing catchup with Legends and Lore posts again. Oh well. Let’s take a look at expertise dice.

The big news (which I’m posting about several weeks later) is that expertise dice are not just intended to be a way to use maneuvers, they’re actually a key part of the D&D Next math. While spellcasters get cooler (more damaging) spells at higher levels, combat classes will get expertise dice so that their damage increases. To-hit bonuses stay about the same, but damage and HP rises.

Expertise dice are now, effectively, a required part of any class to allow them to deal damage at the planned rate. Any class that deals damage needs bonus damage that advances at the pace of expertise dice or they won’t be able to hold their own in a fight. Expertise dice mirror the HP each class gains at each level, keeping the relative amount of damage and HP more or less constant across levels.

The goal is to have relatively flat math for bonuses to attack and AC, while still having a dramatic difference between a 1st level fighter and a 5th level one. For that it certainly works, and the possibilities of maneuvers are a nice bonus to the approach. It does create some odd fiction though.

Consider the fighter skilled in climbing. At first level he has about a 65% chance of climbing a rough stone wall, takes about 4 hits to kill a carrion crawler, and can take only 2 hits from the carrion crawler. At 10th level it’s a 65-90% chance of climbing the wall (depending on skill allocation), kill the crawler in just over 1 hit (or 1 hit, on a lucky roll), and can take around 12 hits.

What this says about my character is interesting: unless I’m a dedicated climber my chances of climbing a wall have barely improved, but I can now take roughly 6 times the damage without choosing to focus on damage. Basically: you automatically get better at killing, but not at (for example) scrambling over a wall.

It seems like increasing HP with level is a bedrock assumption here, so given that this solution is pretty solid. If we question the assumption that HP increases there are many more options.

One of my favorites is from Stars Without Number: the warrior class gets to ignore one attack per battle (turning a hit into a miss). It allows the class to scale nicely, even if HP doesn’t increase1.

That kind of mechanic allows for an increased ability to survive without a huge increase in numbers. It can allow HP to be more clearly tied to the fiction: HP doesn’t have to rise for the character to be able to survive bigger threats.

Ultimately, since increasing HP with level is pretty much a basic assumption, this is a good way to work with it. If HP is going to rise with levels, it’s best if you don’t have to carefully design your character to keep up with the increasing HP totals. Expertise dice as a math equalizer are less interesting than expertise dice as maneuver-fuel, but they’re serving a useful purpose.

  1. HP does increase with level in SWN, but in a really cool way: each level you roll all your hit dice and take the total, if it’s higher than your old HP you take the new total. This allows HP to increase steadily without letting a few big rolls make a character completely beyond the norm.</em>:endnote: 

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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